The fascinating success story of red wines from the southern Rhone
By Christelle Zamora - Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 02 February 2022
For several decades, red wines from Drôme and Vaucluse have been well-received by the public. Restructuring work began in the vineyards and is already reaping rewards with fresher, less oaky, palatable reds that consumers are embracing.
Bought in 2018 by well-heeled Polish investors Mariusz and Marta Gawron, Château Isolette in the Luberon is undergoing major restructuring. With forty-five hectares under vine, thirty of them entitled to Luberon appellation status, this very old estate located between Bonnieux and Apt sells the balance of its wines under the Ventoux appellation and as varietal wine labelled IGP Méditerranée. Over the last twenty years, explains estate director Olivier Rouquet, the profile of the wines has changed:
“The Luberon used to grow a lot of Carignan, which we have grubbed up and replaced with Syrah and Grenache. Consumers want rounded, tannic wines, so maturation in large and small barrels is reserved for age-worthy wines”.
Château Isolette is a 45-hectare vineyard located in the Luberon national park, between the Rhone Valley to the North and the Côtes de Provence region
Most of the estate’s red wines are tank-fermented. Its high-end offerings can be matured for 18 to 24 months, but the estate’s signature style is to steer clear of overt oak influence: “For our reds, our priority is to preserve the fruit and roundness, so barrels are only used to micro-oxygenate the wine. We use French wood from the Tronçais forest (in the Allier region) with a very tight, fine grain and delicate toast”, adds the property’s technical director. At Isolette, oaky wines are set aside for a small clientele of enthusiasts.
Current restructuring of Isolette’s vineyards implies replanting Mourvèdre. Rouquet believes that adverse weather is making Mourvèdre a great ally for red wines because it is a late-ripener. The variety counterbalances alcohol levels in the earlier-ripening Grenache, and although Syrah seems to be adapted to drought conditions, its alcohol content can be high, whereas Mourvèdre makes a great blender.
The varietal trio Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre will produce the red Rhone wines of the future, although leaf removal and irrigation will be required to rein in alcohol. At Château Isolette, everyone is busy replanting five hectares of vines.
THREE PRIORITIES FOR CÔTES DU RHÔNE
Denis Guthmuller is the chairman of the Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages producers’ organisation and since 2014, he has also co-chaired the economic committee at Inter Rhône, the regional wine marketing board. Originally from Alsace, he has been farming forty hectares in Sainte Cécile les Vignes, Vaucluse, with his wife Florence since the late 1990s. His sense of public duty quickly led him to a number of collective tenures. He was chairman of the Cave Cécilia co-operative winery for many years before it merged with the co-operative in Cairanne, which he now co-chairs. He converted his family farm to organic in 2009, and took a proactive role in establishing the South-East France organic wine marketing board in 2019, which he also chairs.
Views out over Château Isolette’s vineyards, between Bonnieux and Apt in the Luberon appellation area
Although his work at the head of the producers’ organisation is a seamless transition from his previous tenures, Denis Guthmuller has set himself several priorities. The first is to boost winegrowers’ income through yields, a key factor in profitability, while maintaining a high level of quality. His second priority is to ramp up activities that favour protection of the environment and biodiversity. His goal is anything if not ambitious, and that is to make the Côtes du Rhône appellation a national benchmark for sustainability. He feels the Rhone climate is relatively conducive to ethically-focused environmental practices and that this is a genuine opportunity to enhance the image of Rhone winegrowers. His third priority is to review the profile of the wines, across the colour spectrum, to adapt to global warming but also to meet the expectations of tomorrow’s consumers.
THE SOUTHERN GRENACHE-SYRAH DUO
In the Rhone Valley, many appellations and growths have overhauled the aromatic profile of their wines, both blends and single varietals. Vinsobres is one such example. The wines, which were very full-bodied in the 1990s, are now fruitier and fresher. Great efforts have been made in Cairanne, where the grapes must be harvested by hand, old vines are seen as a legacy that needs to be protected, grape sorting is mandatory and very few sulphites are added.
In Rasteau, the dry red wines are very structured and aromatic, with Grenache, the main grape variety, imparting abundant roundness. Old-vine Grenache produces wines with a silky tannic backbone and aromas of ripe fruit and spices, whereas Syrah lends the dry reds an intense colour and appealing notes of black fruit, violet and pepper. Although Grenache is the most widely planted grape variety in the southern Rhone, Syrah is the dominant variety in the northern Rhone Valley. Here, it is fermented as a single red grape variety, although it can be grown alongside the white Viognier in Côte-Rôtie and with Roussanne and Marsannne in Saint-Joseph and Hermitage. In Cornas, Syrah is grown as a single varietal across the 136-hectare appellation. The very pronounced, long-standing dichotomy between Syrah in the North and Grenache in the South of the Rhone valley is still true today. Syrah has gained currency in the cooler southern and Languedoc vineyard sites in the Pic Saint-Loup and Terrasses du Larzac appellations, where it is preferred to Grenache, unlike in the southern Rhone.
A Grenache vineyard at Domaine Martin in the southern Rhone Valley
JUDICIOUS USE OF WOOD
Founded in 1859, Maison Ogier - which belongs to the Advini group - is based in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the heart of the most prestigious of the southern French appellations. In order to interpret the subtle variations in the vineyard sites in the Côtes du Rhône, Ogier has honed its knowledge of the appellation’s soils - pebbles, fawn-sands, red sandstone, limestone fragments – and then adapted its fermentation and maturation techniques accordingly. Its century-old cellars house more than 8,000 hl of wooden tanks, tuns, demi-muids, barrels and conical wooden vats. But this in no way implies that the wines are over-oaky. Quite the contrary. “Although each label has its own identity, our fruit is co-fermented (several grape varieties in the same vat) to produce unique balance and complexity through this intimate fusion of grape varieties. Although some of our wines are matured in concrete tanks to preserve fruit, most of our red wines benefit from being matured in oak barrels to preserve their typicity whilst at the same time gaining in finesse and freshness. The northern growths, which are mainly Syrah-based, spend some time in new oak, as do some of our southern appellations (Gigondas, Châteauneuf-du-Pape) for up to 6 to 8 months depending on the quality of the vintage”, comments Edouard Guérin, the winemaker at Maison Ogier.
In the southern Rhone Valley and at Châteauneuf du Pape, limestone shards lend the wines at Maison Ogier elegance and pronounced minerality
For the other growths, the choice of demi-muids is preferable so that vineyard site selection can continue to be built upon. As larger containers, they allow very low oxidation-reduction, whilst small interactions with the wood beautifully enhance structure and promote the wine’s finesse and velvety feel. The length of maturation varies from 12 to 24 months, depending on the potential of the wine.
“So our red Côtes du Rhône starts an initial phase in concrete tanks, before moving on to large wooden containers such as tuns or conical vats to refine the tannins”, adds Guérin. At Ogier, the cellars are as much part of the company’s heritage as its vineyards, enhancing each wine, according to the vintage, and lending it that much sought-after drinkability.
Between Vaison la Romaine and Orange in Vaucluse, David and Eric Martin took over the namesake family estate twenty years ago. Their ambition was to grow bottled wine sales and exports. The two first cousins are the great-grandsons of founder Julien Martin who established the estate in 1905.
David and Eric run Domaine Martin together
They currently farm 78 hectares of vines in Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages (Plan de Dieu, Sainte Cécile les Vignes) and in the Rasteau and Cairanne growths. Specifications for the appellations stipulate that Grenache must account for 40 to 50% of the varietal range, with Syrah and Mourvèdre complementing the blends. The estate currently sells 250,000 bottles, including 80,000 bottles of generic Côtes du Rhône, half in France, half for export to England and the United States. The Plan de Dieu village-designated appellation is a roaring success across all markets. The wine is matured in old tuns bought by the cousins’ grandfather over 60 years ago, where the majority of their wines are matured. “We only use second-use wine barrels to mature Cairanne for 3 to 4 months to differentiate it from the other wines. This produces light oaky notes that preserve the fruit”
CONSUMER TASTES HAVE CHANGED
Eric Martin in his vineyards
At Domaine Martin, David and Eric Martin have noticed a change in consumer habits.
“Twenty years ago, consumers were looking for tannic wines and would let them age. Nowadays, they prefer wines that are not very mature and fruit-driven. Because of urban storage facilities, not everyone can let the wines improve with age”
In export markets, he is pleased to sell his Côtes du Rhône Plan de Dieu in Kenya via an airline company. He also claims that since the appellation was officially recognised in 2004, its sales have grown incrementally. Domaine des Arches near Nyons is a family farm that has been growing a range of crops for six generations. Ideally situated on the road to the Alps, between Vaison- la-Romaine and Nyons, it farms 14 hectares of vines in AOP Côtes du Rhône and sells 15,000 bottles locally. The estate’s patriarch, Daniel Ravoux, explains that in very hot years, which are increasingly frequent, the wines have very generous alcohol levels and need to be matured before being released for drinking. He remains convinced that the wines are much better and much more enjoyable when they are drunk at their peak. But consumers and wine merchants alike are pressing him to produce early- drinking wines. As the family waits for its vines to be classified as Côtes du Rhône Villages Nyons, there is one major reason for it to rejoice, and that is the progress in the quality of Rhone wines. And when you spare some thought for the age-old style of the region’s wines, you realise what a quantum leap has been achieved.
By Christelle Zamora - Photographs: courtesy of the estates - © DR - © Christelle Zamora - © Alain Reynaud
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